Donald Byrd ‘Ethiopian Knights’ 180g Vinyl (Blue Note) 4/5

Set for release on August 9th, Donald Byrd’s ‘Ethiopian Knights’ is another important reissue from the Blue Note 80 Vinyl Edition. The album is all-analog, mastered by Kevin Gray from the original master tapes, and pressed on 180g vinyl for great sound quality.

Donald Byrd must be one of the most prolific artists to have ever recorded for Blue Note Records with a highly successful career that spanned over 35 years, with many best selling albums within his formative period from 1955-1975. His career started in 1947 aged 15 and he first featured alongside the Robert Barnes Sextette; a 78 shellac release with the swinging r&b track, ‘Bobbin At Barbie’s’. Aged around 23 the trumpeter was setting up his own band for Blue Note Records whilst recording for Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers alongside Doug Watkins, Horace Silver and Hank Mobley. In demand during the mid to late 1950s as a key replacement for the great Clifford Brown, the trumpeter featured on many key albums alongside leaders including Hank Mobley, Jackie Mclean, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk and Gigi Gryce whilst recording for his own band.

A teacher and inspiration for many emerging artists, Donald Byrd transcended the changes during the 1960s and 1970s with later classics such as ‘Places and Spaces’, ‘Steppin Into Tomorrow’ and ‘Blackbyrd’ reaching out to a wider audience, many of whom approached his music from a retrospective means through the means of contemporary styles of music. Theo Parrish paid tribute to the trumpeter’s music with the 1996 track ‘Early Byrd’, which sampled ‘Lansana’s Priestess’ from The Street Lady album. It referenced Donald Byrd’s debut album in 1955 and respectively marked the influence that the trumpeter conveyed for many generations of artists and audiences. A few years earlier Donald Byrd age 60, featured on Guru’s Jazzamatazz album project, contributing to the project on the track ‘Loungin’ playing trumpet and talking about life experiences over a hip hop beat.

Produced by George Butler, Donald Byrd’s ‘Ethiopian Knights’ was recorded in 1971 and it’s an important album which marks a transitional shift away from the mid-late 60s soul-jazz classics such as ‘Blackjack’ and ‘Slow Drag’ into the emerging electronic funk-inspired jazz era that the early 70s embraced through such innovators as Miles Davis.

The album kicks off with the excellent ‘Emperor’ track; a gutsy groove that’s loose and adventurous leaving scope for Bobby Hutcherson [vibes], Harold Land [tenor saxophone], Thurman Greene [trombone] and Donald Byrd [trumpet] room for improvisation. Joe Sample [organ] and Wilton Felder [electic bass] add a touch of that funkier Crusaders sound whilst the rhythm section dialogue between drummer Ed Greene and percussionist Bobbye Porter Hall is colourful and inventive whilst maintaining a sturdy backbeat groove throughout the 15 minutes.

David T Walker featured on many great albums including Stevie Wonder’s ‘Innervision’ album and Marvin Gaye’s ‘Let Get It On’. On the laid back funk-inspired ‘Little Rasti’, the guitarist lifts the weight of the groove with buoyancy and spark, adding touches of altered electronic guitar effects, loosely associated with groups such as The Meters and Funk Inc. In fact, the track starts off in a Meters fashion before the melting pot groove builds. There’s a collective spirit about this track with pianist Bill Henderson III and organist Joe Sample bringing a spacey feel to the occasion. It’s another adventurous jam which spreads out over 17 minutes whilst always brought back into a central perspective by Harold Land and Donald Byrd.

Ethiopian Knights is an adventurous piece by Donald Byrd which arrived at a time when the explosion of funk/rock/jazz/fusion was becoming almost hallowed by the burgeoning free-spirited scene that artists like Miles and Sly Stone infused. Whilst this album envelops certain elements of that movement Donald Byrd’s ability to transcend boundaries yet retain a central ethos and approach is once again displayed with his usual humility and wisdom. An important album and definitely a welcome release for those seeking to take that journey away from either his later pursuits alongside The Mizell Brothers or his earlier soul-jazz albums in the mid-sixties.

Mark Savva